The Presbyterian Divestment Vote: Toward a New Model of Community Relations


Jews and Presbyterians pray together during deliberations at the 2014 Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit

In the wake of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent decision to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation, Jewish establishment leaders have been expressing their displeasure toward the PC(USA) in no uncertain terms.
Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman stated last week that church leaders have “fomented an atmosphere of open hostility to Israel.” Rabbi Noam Marans director of inter-religious relations at the American Jewish Committee, declared that “the PC(USA) decision is celebrated by those who believe they are one step closer to a Jew-free Middle East.” And Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, publicly accused the PC(USA) of having a “deep animus” against “both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
Given such extreme rhetoric, it may come as a surprise to many that the same overture that called for the Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions to divest from Caterpillar, Inc., Hewett-Packard and Motorola Solutions also included the following resolutions:

– (To) reaffirm Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with the United Nations resolutions;
– (To) declare its commitment to a two-state solution in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people;
– (To) reaffirm PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith dialog and partnerships with the American Jewish, Muslim friends and Palestinian Christians and call for all presbyteries and congregations within the PC(USA) to include interfaith dialogue and relationship-building as part of their own engagement in working for a just peace.
– (To) urge all church institutions to give careful consideration to possible investments in Israel-Palestine that advance peace and improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.”

Do these sound like the words of a “hostile” church committed to a “Jew-free Middle East?”
In truth, these are the words of a religious community struggling in good faith to walk the path of justice while still remaining sensitive to the concerns of their Jewish sisters and brothers.
Such a description certainly comports with my own personal experience. I attended the Presbyterian General Assembly last week as part of the Jewish Voice for Peace delegation and had lengthy conversations with numerous GA commissioners. When I asked them to share their feelings about the divestment overture, the majority responded with a similar refrain: in their hearts they wanted to vote in favor, but they hesitated because they were worried what it might do to their relationships with their Jewish family and friends and colleagues.
This theme occurred repeatedly during the committee and plenum debates as well. Commissioners who opposed the overture relied less on political arguments than upon their concern for their personal relationships with Jews and with the Jewish community at large. Many commissioners who spoke in favor of the overture expressed similar concerns even as they decided to cast their votes as a matter of deeply held conscience.
In the end, the process that led up to the final vote on divestment was one of genuine discernment and faithful witness. To be sure, the final wording of the overture is a nuanced statement by a church that clearly seeks to follow its sacred mission of justice in Israel/Palestine even as it cherishes its long-standing relationship with the Jewish community.
As a Jew, I was deeply saddened that so many Jewish establishment leaders saw fit to resort to what can only be called emotional blackmail in order to fight against a Presbyterian overture that they didn’t like. But for all the undue pressure, I have no doubt that the heavy-handed nature of these tactics ultimately contributed in no small way to the success of the final divestment overture.
Notably, during the plenum discussion, one commissioner commented that he was “offended” to see some Jewish opponents to the overture wearing T-shirts that said “Love us or Leave Us.” Another asked if Reform movement President Rabbi Rick Jacob’s offer to broker a meeting in Jerusalem between Presbyterian leaders and Benyamin Netanyahu if they voted down the overture was somehow a thinly veiled threat.
As a Jewish supporter of divestment, I will say without hesitation that this vote was first and foremost a victory for Palestinians, who continue to suffer under Israel’s illegal and immoral occupation. On a secondary level, however, we might say that this was a victory for a religious community that refused to let its sacred convictions be stymied by cynical pressure.
As for us, the Jewish community is left with the very real question: Are we truly prepared to write off one of the largest American Christian denominations over this vote – a vote that was taken in good faith and with profound deliberation? And on a deeper level, we might well ask ourselves honestly, have the Jewish communal establishment’s bullying tactics finally reached the end of their usefulness?
Indeed, when it comes to the issue of Israel/Palestine, the unwritten rule of the Jewish establishment has always been, “toe our line or feel our wrath.” By voting for divestment, the PC(USA) declared itself ready to stand down this ultimatum.
There is every reason to believe other denominations will now follow suit. Will our community continue to respond with cynical threats or will we finally be ready to model an approach to community relations grounded in trust, understanding and mutual respect?

19 thoughts on “The Presbyterian Divestment Vote: Toward a New Model of Community Relations

  1. Thank you Brant for your continued dedication and non-violent struggle to see peace and justice come for all the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine. Many blessings to you, my friend.

    • As a Jew and human rights activist, I want to thank you Rabbi Donsky and Rabbi Rosen. It is important that people read the full text of the Presbytery resolution, its divestment from U.S. corporations that profit from supporting Israel’s security apparatus, and the resolution’s affirmation of a 2 State solution, an equitable sharing of land and resources and interfaith dialogue. And, Rabbi Rosen, I am so proud of the role of Jewish Voice for Peace (as reported in an extraordinary article in last Saturday’s NY Times.

  2. Brant – Thank you for your thoughtful writing on this. As a Jewish man married to a Presbyterian, I’ve spent many years deeply involved with folks within the PCUSA working on very difficult issues around social justice. The vast majority of people I’ve met in these several decades have been kind, thoughtful, and loving while also being quite passionate about whatever cause they are working on, whether it is feeding hungry people, standing between combatants to stop bloodshed, building homes for the homeless, trying to protect the environment, making the church and society more inclusive for all, or pulling together the best darned potluck you could imagine. I’ve also learned that Presbyterians don’t do anything without tons and tons and tons of deliberation, weighing every option, listening to as many sides as there might be, and truly thinking about what impact their decisions will have.
    Are the decisions always “good?” No.
    Yesterday, Sunday, we had a guest at worship who had been given sanctuary in our church during the war in El Salvador. He would probably not have survived had he been returned there. Ours was a “sanctuary church” letting undocumented migrants and conscientious objectors stay within our campus despite orders for their arrest or deportation. We spoke out against what was going on in Central America, in Vietnam, and against the Iraq war. Were we anti-American for doing so? No. Though that was certainly the charge leveled against those who spoke out.
    Is divestment from Hewlett-Packard, Caterpiller, and Motorola the right thing to do? The commissioners did their best to listen to passionate people on all sides of the issue. I’ve watched commissioners at General Assemblies and truly believe that they are listening to all sides and guided by more than just what they thought before they arrived. This time, on this vote, a majority of commissioners believed that yes, this was the right thing to do. Did they do that with hate in their hearts? No.
    Thanks for sharing your perspective and your hope that this decision results in MORE dialogue, not less.

  3. Brant Rosen implies that opposition to this overture comes from only the “Jewish establishment,” but I think that it is the overwhelming negative reaction to the Presbyterians’ decision that comes from the majority of American Jews. Those of us in that majority community won’t savage our individual relationships with our Presbyterian, or other denominations’, friends. But we will double our efforts to highlight the negative fallout from this overture and strive to prevent other mainline Christian groups from heading in that toxic and lethal direction. The PCUSA leadership will have to be satisfied with a bit of isolation for a while, I am afraid.
    The close vote (310 – 303) on a matter so serious reminds me of the old joke about the synagogue board voting 7 to 5 to extend a r’fuah sh’leimah to their ill rabbi. I find it very hard to believe that any governing body would express its movement’s sentiment on such a monumental matter with the vote being so close. It is cutting off their nose to spite their face, and I write that not on the subject of relationships with the Jewish community or individual Jews. I say it in respect to the peace process. I believe theirs is an act of cowardice, as it only served their own, individual movement conscience. Their deed will serve only to harden the hearts of the Israeli leadership and retard movement toward peace. The Presbyterians looked only at the short-term goal of concluding their ten-year process (finally!), when they should be on the side of those who want to do the tough job and search for peace through direct contact with the parties involved. Nothing the Presbyterians did last weekend will bring the parties back to the table. It’s all very sad.

    • I am a Jew and among the majority of Jews who support and end to the Occupation, end of settlement expansion, end of Palestinian House Demolitions, end to the Blockade of Gaza – a UN reported humanitarian nightmare. I am a Jew who has watched the collapse of U.S. brokered peace negotiations, I strongly support the Presbytery USA courageous decision to divest ONLY from those corporations who profit from providing Israel those products that help continue its occupation and suppression of Palestinian human rights and a homeland with a sharing of land and resources. Read the Prophet Isaiah.

  4. Thank you Rabbi Rosen. When I received a hysterical email today from the Jewish Federation excoriating the Presbyterians for their vote, I was deeply ashamed. The Federation’s email stated that the Presbyterians vote to divest from Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorola was because of these companies’ “sales to Israel,” purposefully ignoring real reason for the vote to divest: the role these companies play in maintaining the occupation. Clearly this wording was meant to imply that Presbyterians are endorsing a boycott of Israel and companies doing business there, which they clearly stated they are not. The fact that the Federation and its allies had to resort to this sort of dishonesty speaks volumes. As ashamed as I am of the Federation’s hysterical rhetoric, I am doubly proud of your work, and that of everyone at JVP, with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters, to take this important step.

  5. Kol Hakavod to the Presbyterians who voted their consciences on this issue both those who voted for and those who voted against.
    I have trouble offering similar kudos to you Brant.
    On June 23 you wrote in a post on the same subject as this post in your own blog “Shalom Rav:
    “As a Jewish supporter of divestment, I will say without hesitation that this vote was first and foremost a victory for Palestinians, who continue to suffer under Israel’s illegal and immoral occupation.”
    Over whom were the Palestinians victorious? The government of Israel and its efforts to defend its population from a threat of terrorism that has existed since its creation? The majority of the Jewish community of the United States that has supported that state? The Jewish supporters of Israel in our government?
    You took two days off from your day job as spiritual leader of five hundred or so American Jewish families in Evanston, Illinois to go to Detroit and work diligently to garner votes from leaders of the Presbyterian Church. You were successful helping Palestinians score a victory over Israel and the majority of the American Jewish community. Congratulations on your persuasive powers.
    There’s a scene in the movie “Annie Hall ” where a young Alvy is explaining to his doctor that he’s depressed because the universe will break up and “that would be the end of everything.” Alvy’s mother gives him a disgusted look and shouts, “What is that your business?” She looks back at the doctor and says, “He’s not doing his homework.”
    Let the Presbyterians and all the rest of the 99.8 percent of the world population decide for themselves what their consciences tell them to do.
    Wouldn’t it be more effective to work with the Jews? We are the ones whose behavior you want to change. Or is that too hard a sell?
    Some people are proud of you Brant. I am not.

  6. The Presbyterian vote makes us proud to be Americans. Let’s hope more churches, congregations and other civil groups follow.

  7. I think it is confusing that the Presbyterian Church would boycott Israel , the one democratic country that offers religious freedom to Christians. It does not make any sense. Considering what the Moslems are doing to each other, murdering each other by the hundreds of thousands, it is confusing why Arabs would want another tyrannical corrupt islamic terrorist country that will oppress its own people more than harm Jews. It does not make any sense. If the US would stop funding the PLO and now the PLO -Hams Unity government that supports terrorism , there would be a better chance of peace in the region in Israel and the land known as the West Bank. The land known as the West Bank was originally conquered and occupied by Jordan in 1948. Israel reclaimed this same land in 1967. Before the PLO rose in power, Israel did much to improve the quality of life of the Arabs who lived there such as giving them electricity, hospitals, roads, etc. Then with the rise of the PLO they could not do anything more but had to protect themselves from terrorism. The Israeli companies that operate in the West Bank help Arabs to have meaningful lucrative jobs. Do not believe the terrible lies said about Israel.

    • The Presbyterians did NOT vote to boycott Israel. And the Presbyterian church continues to invest in many companies that do business in Israel. They voted to cease financial support of those companies that provide tools to assist in oppression and war.

  8. We Presbyterians were greatly blessed with the gracious presence of persons from Jewish Voice for Peace during our General Assembly. They reflected radiantly the shalom of God with which we are blessed daily. As they talked with us, attended our committee hearings and moved among us, I sensed the shared value of mutual respect and love for one’s neighbors. Rabbi Rosen’s honest presentation at the Israel-Palestine Mission Network dinner touched the common struggle we have as we seek to bring back human dignity and justice for our Palestinian neighbors/sisters/brothers within God’s transforming love. May we all seek to be faithful to outdo one another in showing honor and mutual love for one another. Shalom!

  9. I am a Presbyterian pastor and have always considered myself a friend to Israel. I appreciate Rabbi Rosen’s presentation very much. He understands that after protesting for years, even decades, about the injustices flowing from the occupation, many Presbyterians, reluctantly, felt that we had to alter our protest or resign any pretense of working for justice. Thank you, Rabbi Rosen, for informing your readers of my denomination’s affirmation of “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation” and of our desire for two secure, prosperous, free states in the Holy Land.

  10. How many we’ll meaning decent Jews are there in this misguided effort to defame Israel and the Jewish people…a hundred..maybe a thousand..maybe as many as 5k..they have decided in their moral narcissism to give hate the Jews free license to every anti Semite who sees and hears them..they have ,in their ardor for the enemies of Israel to join the worst elements of the uber left and the hate filled right in the drive to destroy israel…this is a true shanda for the goyimas my mother would have called their efforts..I myself would use harsher words

  11. As Golda Meir who became Prime Minister of Israel in 1969 (when she was 71) observed “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.” To date she has been proven right, peace has not come to the Levant.
    The Arab Palestinians still sacrifice their children, frequently using them as human shields, while the IDF restrains from shooting at the civilians.
    I recall, just three years ago, the Itamar massacre of the Vogal family including their newborn baby. I was especially nasuated by the joyous celebration and passing out of sweets by the Palestinians, as a way of rejoicing that most of the Vogal family had been wiped out.
    Who benefits from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s action? Hamas and Hezbollah that is who.
    US News said this (Jan 9, 09) of Hamas “… the romanticized image of Hamas, the pitiful underdog David confronting the giant Israeli Goliath… , the most significant difference between Adolf Hitler’s and Hamas’s plans to annihilate the Jewish people is that the Nazis hid their full intent until World War II while Hamas has been promising to do exactly this since its founding charter 20 years ago.”
    Clay Waters writing in the New York Times (Aug 18, 06) quoted the Hezbollah Charter “Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel …will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.” Khaled Mashaal, the chairman of Hamas is quoted as saying “Palestinians should also promote the value of dying in the name of Allah. Mashaal continued to encourage Palestinian fathers to say, “This son of mine is a sacrifice for Palestine.” In the same article by JORDAN SCHACHTEL, he reviews the charter of Hamas calling for “the destruction of the state of Israel and a restoration of a Judenrein (a place with no Jews) state of Palestine in its place, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. And points out that the Hamas charter has not been amended since its creation in 1988.
    It appears as if the Presbyterian Church (USA) was strongly influenced by the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). The Anti-Defamation League states that the “JVP consistently co-sponsors rallies to oppose Israeli military policy that are marked by signs and slogans comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, demonizing Jews and voicing support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.”
    In conslusion disarmement by the Palestinians, in my opinon would bring peace, while disarment of the Isrealies would bring upon a second holocast. I am of the that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is now on a path that will rend it apart.

  12. The Jewish State in a Morally Sick World
    By Dennis Prager
    Let’s drop the names “Hamas” and “Israel” and make a list of the characteristics of two imaginary warring entities. We’ll call them Entity A and Entity B.
    Entity A:
    Declares that its raison d’etre is to annihilate Entity B.
    Sends missiles to explode in the most populated parts of Entity B in order to kill as many civilians as possible.
    Uses families and individual civilians as human shields to protect its own leaders from attack.
    Tortures and kills domestic political opponents.
    Has no political or religious freedom and has no freedom of speech, press, or assembly, and no independent judiciary.
    Is a theocracy.
    Violently oppresses gays.
    Saturates its education and airwaves with a demonic hatred of Entity B.
    Rated a “6” by Freedom House in its 2013 report on freedom in the world. Seven is the worst possible rating. Entity A ranks 6 in freedom, 6 in civil liberties and 6 political rights.
    Entity B:
    Recognizes the right of Entity A to an independent existence.
    Has never begun a war with Entity A.
    Has never targeted civilians in Entity A. In fact, it has sacrificed soldiers in order to avoid killing Entity A civilians.
    Domestic political opponents – including even supporters of Entity A – not only have freedom of assembly, press and expression; they have political parties with representatives in Entity B’s parliament.
    Has freedom of the press, assembly, religion, and a completely independent judiciary.
    Allows gays full civil rights.
    Has innumerable human rights groups dedicated to the welfare of people belonging to Entity A.
    Has no education or broadcasts comparable to the daily hate in Entity A.
    Freedom House rating for 2014 is 1.5 in freedom (“1” is best possible); 2 in civil liberties; 1 in political liberties.
    So, then, with which entity does nearly every government in the world side? Entity A.
    And what is the primary concern of the United Nations, nearly all the world’s media, and nearly all the world’s intellectuals? That Entity B, while hundreds of missiles are launched at its most populated cities, not kill any of the civilians among whom Entity A’s leaders hide.
    The moral gulf between Israel, our Entity B, and Hamas, our Entity A, is as clear and as great as the one that existed between the Allies and Nazi Germany. It is one of the few instances in today’s world when the Nazi analogy is accurate.
    It is clear that while free and democratic countries such as those in Western Europe value the freedoms of speech, assembly, and press for themselves, the absence of these freedoms among Israel’s enemies means nothing to the Europeans in morally assessing the Middle East conflict.
    The news media, too, have no moral focus. They are preoccupied with Gazans who have died, and with the disparity between the number of Gazans killed and the number of Israelis killed – as if that is morally dispositive. Imagine that during World War II, the Western press had converged on German hospitals and apartment buildings and repeatedly announced the huge disparity between German civilian deaths and British civilian deaths. More than 10 times the number of German civilians were killed as were British – but did that have anything at all to do with the morality of the British war against Germany?
    The big question, then, is why? Why is decent, free, democratic Israel not fully supported by decent countries against the genocidal Islamist regime of Gaza?
    Is there any other example in history of a free state and a police state at war in which the free state was deemed morally equivalent to the police state, or, even more implausibly, deemed the aggressor? Last week, a New York Times editorial put the equivalence this way: “an atmosphere in which each side dehumanizes the other.”
    Here, then, are some reasons:
    1. The West has lost its way. Europe gave up on its values after World War I. And the American left, which dominates the media, gave up on America’s distinctive values after the Vietnam War.
    2. Unlike during World War II, there is a United Nations today, and it is dominated by over 50 Islamic countries, their dozens of allies, and a Security Council on which sit Russia and China as permanent members.
    3. The current American president is a product of the postwar leftist morality. Wherever the left is in power, Israel is unpopular at best and loathed at worst. Thus, Israel’s best friend today is the conservative government of Canada.
    4. The world’s news media relentlessly show images of wounded and dead Gazans. Israel, on the other hand, though the target of mass-killing missiles, has thus far been able to avoid such casualties.
    5. Israel is Jewish.
    If there are more valid reasons for why the world equates Israel and its morally primitive enemies – or actually deems Israel the villain – I have yet to hear them.

  13. To evaluate the implications here responsibly, one needs to first address the matter of a two-state solution versus a one-state solution.
    It’s largely the extremists on both sides — the illegal Jewish settlers on the one hand and certain radical anti-Semitic activists on the other — who most uniformly support the idea of one state. Some others do as well, but outside of these two extremist groups, support for one state is spotty. Why? Because the one-state idea might well allow one demographic — it doesn’t matter which one — to be too much in the driver’s seat and to stick it to the other. That concern makes most moderates on both sides uneasy — and it should. This is why the two-state idea, however the two parties to this conflict may ultimately achieve it, remains the only one that affords a glimmer of a chance for the principle of self-determination to be truly honored. The two-state goal may seem distant at times, but that’s the worst possible reason to abandon it.
    The first originators, a decade or so back, of the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement, of BDS, largely supported the one-state idea. That, frankly, is why I continue to be very distrustful of any claimed benefits from the divestment juggernaut today. It comes from too extremist a source. A tragic irony here is that, while Netanyahu’s words still convey support for two states, his actions, especially his continued enabling of the illegal settlers, do not. He seems to be doing everything in his power to compromise any two-state hope. Let him prove me wrong. Meanwhile, he and BDS — and Hamas — deserve each other. But neither of the two suffering peoples caught in the middle deserve them. So shame on them.
    As a Presbyterian myself, I’m aware that many now cite the riders on this year’s successful divestment measure in the Presbyterian General Assembly as a guarantee of some kind that the official Presbyterian Church still supports, among other things, the idea of two states. Indeed, one of the riders does explicitly reaffirm support for two states. But sadly, this is misleading as an indication of where the General Assembly is headed.
    Why is it misleading? Because even as the vote in favor of divestment was extremely narrow, the unheralded vote for another Overture, 04-01, was disconcertingly huge. Now, 04-01 calls on the Presbyterian Church to revisit entirely its erstwhile support for two states, directly contradicting the affirmation for two states in the divestment measure! As such, 04-01 is a Trojan horse calculated to upset this Church’s long-time support for two states. That makes the riders on the divestment measure an irrelevant exercise in smoke and mirrors, useless as an indication of where the General Assembly is “coming from”. The Overture 04-01 tells us a lot more, and I don’t like what it’s telling us.
    Candidly, anyone who stresses the divestment riders without ever addressing 04-01 is either sloppy at best or inexcusably misleading at worst. I sincerely believe that anyone swallowing any kool-aid associated with one-state advocacy in any way is either a naive sucker at best or a downright extremist of either the illegal settler or the anti-Semitic variety at worst. Take your pick. At best, those who claim the divestment-measure riders are reassuring don’t know what they are talking about.

  14. These are the folks indirectly supported by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent decision to divest — Dr Bill
    A 10-year girl in Afghanistan is in danger of being honor-killed by her family after being violently raped by a mullah in a local mosque after her Quran class. After the family openly talked about killing the girl, the mullah offered to marry her, claiming to the authorities that he thought the girl was 17 and that the sex was consensual.
    After nearly dying from her injuries sustained during the rape due to a delay in medical care, “Women for Afghan Women,”…
    “I went to the hospital when they brought her there. I was sitting next to her bed when I overheard her mother and aunt saying that her father was under tremendous pressure by the villagers to kill the girl because she had brought shame to them,” said Nederah Geyah, who is the head of the women’s affairs office in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
    Honor killings of girls who have been raped are common in Afghanistan, as family members believe that the raped girl brings shame to the family. Moreover, a girl who has been raped is considered not fit to be married and therefore must be supported by her family….

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